Brown River Queen cover art

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Zombies Got One Right

An unholy combination of cough drops, cough medicine, Vicks Night-time Flu Relief, and a pinch of mummy dust sufficed to ease the infernal sneezing from yesterday.

It also caused me to temporarily lose about 150 IQ points.  At least I hope this is a temporary loss. True, I don't use my brain very often, but it's nice to know it's there, should I be confronted with algebra or a life or death game of Pictionary.   

I feel obliged to give a bit of praise to the writers of last night's episode of The Walking Dead. One scene in particular stands out to me as a writer, and I'll tell you why.

Without giving too much away, Rick, Glen, and a grieving Herschel wind up in an empty bar in the walker-infested town they normally avoid.  To say they've had a bad day is something of an understatement.

In walk two strangers. Living strangers, not walkers.

Both groups are wary, sizing each other up. We get a sense that the two newcomers are up to no good.  Rick refuses to tell them where the farm is, or how many people are there.

The pair insists in asking.  Their manner is almost jovial -- but sinister.

Now, as a writer, I was thinking this -- how could let my readers know just how depraved and vicious these newcomers are?  How can I communicate to the readers how much danger they present to the characters we've come to know and love?

I could have the pair brag about their murderous exploits, I suppose.  Or have them make all manner of brutal and terrifying threats.  I've seen that done, time and time again, in movies and books.

But it would have been all talk.  Scary, maybe, but just some guy talking, all the same.

The show took a much more direct approach.  In the middle of the terse exchanges of dialog, one of the newcomers simply stands up and proceeds to urinate right there in the floor.  He never seeks cover.  He doesn't turn away.  He doesn't even stop talking.

He just relieves himself right there, as though doing so is the most agreeable and natural thing in the world.

That single act told us, the audience, everything we needed to know about these two strangers.  Told us that they were so far gone beyond the bounds of normal society that they had no limits.  These were men for whom any act, no matter how unspeakable or vile, was just another part of just another day.

And that makes what happened next not just plausible but inevitable.

So I tip my hat to a TV show, and that doesn't happen very often.  

And now, since I'm still loopy, I'm going to post another excerpt from a book. This one is from The Banshee's Walk, one of the Markhat books.  Enjoy!


But Gertriss wasn’t listening to me or looking at me anymore. “What’s that?” she asked, taking a step off the trail toward a big swaying pine tree.

I followed her eyes.

The pine had sprouted feathers. Black feathers, crow’s feathers, three of them arranged in a neat triangle right about eye level.

Gertriss touched the ends of them just as something streaked past her shoulder, close enough to ruffle a few strands of her hair.

I was maybe three long strides away. She saw me coming and put up her hands and that’s all she had time to do before I hit her midways and took her down. We rolled, and she snarled and clawed. Despite my weight and experience the only way I got her to be still was by pinning her shoulders and head with my rucksack.

“That was a crossbow bolt,” I said. “Shut up and be still.”

She growled something that didn’t sound much like assent but at least she quit trying to knee me in the groin.

I rolled off her, kept low and kept my rucksack in front of me, and peeped around the big old pine long enough to scan the woods before I pulled my fool head back. I’d seen nothing but trees and scrub, heard nothing but wind and the far-off lowing of cattle, but I knew at least one crossbow-wielding Markhat-hater was lurking somewhere near.

Gertriss scooted closer, biting her lip. I felt blood running down my face, shrugged. “Hush,” I said. “You didn’t know.”

“How many?” she whispered.

“I figure two,” I whispered back. One to reload. One to fire. If they were smart they had at least two crossbows, probably sturdy, quiet army-surplus Stissons.

“What do we do now?” asked Gertriss. She was eyeing my rucksack. It dawned on me that they’d wanted her dead first so she wouldn’t scream when I went down.

I shook my head. “Crossbows trump swords,” I said. “So we wait.”

Gertriss frowned. “Wait for what?”

I heard a tromping in the woods. They were on the move. Hoping to flush us out, flank us, just walk up and bury a pair of black-bodied oak bolts right in our chests.

“Keep your head down low,” I said. “Sidestep every third step. Move fast, be quiet, and don’t stop, not for anything.”

Gertriss went wide-eyed. “But—”

“Just do it.” I fumbled in my rucksack, found Toadsticker and yanked it out in a shower of fresh socks and at least one clean pair of underpants.

I stood, pulled Gertriss to her feet and gave her a shove.

Then I took a deep breath and stepped out of cover.

A couple of things happened then, more or less at the same time. First, a muddy, wild-eyed bull calf came trotting out of the trees on the other side of the old road and sauntered right toward me, bound, I suppose, for anywhere but the cattle-paths and the stink of the slaughterhouses and the city.

Next, from the ruined road that lead south toward Wardmoor, a pair of skinny, cloak-clad teenagers trotted up, jaws agape, their pimpled expressions those of confusion giving quickly way to fear.

Finally, and much to my relief, dogs started barking. Out of sight, but close and loud and getting closer and louder. I knew the Watch uses dogs outside the old walls, and I knew my crossbow-fancier knew that too.

The kids stopped, eyed my sword warily. The bull calf snorted at me and without slowing, ambled past, passing so close I could have patted his muddy head had I been so inclined. I suppose bleeding man, indifferent cow and upraised sword made quite a scene, because the youths exchanged looks and took a step back before speaking.

Neither held a crossbow. Neither would have known what to do with a crossbow had they held it.

“We’re looking for a Mr. Markhat,” said the taller of the two. He had long greasy hair and his boots didn’t match. “We’re supposed to meet him and take him to Wardmoor.”

“We don’t have any money,” said the other kid, quickly. “And we didn’t see nothing, either.”

I listened. Wind and trees and barking dogs. No telltale whisking of bolts through pine needles, no clunk and throw of a Stisson. But I did hear the rattle of a wagon, just around the bend, and a man urging on a horse and another man yelling something as he laughed.

“Gertriss,” I said.

“I’m here,” she replied. I didn’t think she’d taken more than four steps despite my shove and my warning. She had a big stick in one hand and what appeared to be one of Mama’s well-worn kitchen knives in the other.

“Come on out,” I said. “Let’s get moving. It’s bad business to keep the client waiting.”

“So you’re Mr. Markhat?” asked the tall kid. He didn’t try to hide a frown. “We made it over the old Bar bridge after all, got further than we thought. What happened to you?”

Gertriss stepped out into the road, her hands suddenly empty, pine needles in her hair, dirt on both the knees of her good new britches.

“Nothing,” I said. A fat drop of blood formed at the tip of my nose, and I wondered just how deep and long my new scratches were. “The cow made lewd remarks about my apprentice. We had to have words. How far to House Werewilk from here?”

The wagon rolled into view. Two men rode the wagon, one driving, one stretched out in the back with his hat covering his face. By now I was sure that my new friend with the crossbow and the grudge was halfway to the cattle-road if not already across it. Three barking jumping mutt-dogs followed, nipping at the wagon wheels and yelping at each other and even though they were not and would never be huge somber-eyed Watch dogs, I could have hugged them all.

“Not far,” said the greasy-haired kid, who was already eyeing Gertriss with the kind of leer she’d teach him to regret if she caught him in reach of those finely sharpened claws of hers. “You and the lady can ride.”

I hefted my rucksack, and only then did I discover the crossbow bolt lodged deep within it. I’d later find it had penetrated two boot soles and a book before stopping, as well as my best white shirt and a wool sock embroidered by Darla with my initials.

The kid saw and went pale. I shrugged. Let them think I spend every day casually picking crossbow bolts out of everything from my laundry to my oatmeal. If I needed to shake in fear, I’d do so later, in the privacy of my own locked room.

Gertriss came to stand close to me and wiped pine needles and loam off her knees. “They’re gone?” she whispered.

I nodded. “For now.”

I could tell by her look she was having second, third, and possibly fourth thoughts about life as a highly paid finder. But in the end, she picked up her bag and made for the wagon, giving the leering kid a good hard country glare as she marched.

I followed, and we got ponies and dogs and wagons turned around then headed down the ruined road toward the Banshee’s Walk.

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